Will We Ever Get Fusion Power?
July 7, 2024 10:13 AM   Subscribe

This is an excellent, readable summary of why we won't see a fusion reactor in our lifetime or falling temperatures (unfortunately, the two are linked). Also worth noting is how private investment always jumps on the bandwagon once public funds have built the locomotive.
posted by verylazyminer (45 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have to read this carefully later, but even the skim was worthwhile: this is the first time I've learned about the Perhapsatron.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:40 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


So the article mentioned that Argentina briefly claimed to have developed fusion power in 1951. Apparently Peron said something like electricity would soon be bottled in half litre containers (?)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:22 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


why we won't see a fusion reactor in our lifetime

That's not what the article says.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:23 AM on July 7 [17 favorites]


Fusion is conceptually simple, squish a few grams of Hydrogen really close and some atoms change to Helium. Releasing a lot of energy. This is done on the Sun, it's been done in labs around the world and it's way too effective in the H Bomb. Works. Just not efficiently to be a practical energy source. All the tests need to push more energy in than is actually released. Until last year when the NIF succeeded.

Reading "The Fairy Tale of Nuclear Fusion" which is a moderately technical review of the efforts since the 1950's. Literally the best minds have been unsuccessful so far.

On the positive side Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a spinoff from MIT has something new: stronger magnets. CFS is building a new, very shiny, tokamak with these huge very powerful magnets and will have a significant test in about a year.

There are 20+ labs and startups around the world that are actively researching and building new machines. Most will only generate papers. But just maybe.
posted by sammyo at 11:28 AM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Terrestrial fusion power has been a pointless boondoggle since solar PV first became price-competitive with coal.

The promise of fusion power was always that fusion's extraordinary fuel efficiency allows ridiculously small amounts of fuel to yield ridiculously large amounts of energy while generating only very modest amounts of radioactive waste, all of which actually comes from degradation of the containment structures under neutron bombardment rather than being a byproduct of the reaction itself as happens with nuclear fission. But solar PV and wind both tap into existing energy flows and therefore consume no fuel at all. They're effectively infinitely fuel-efficient, the only waste they make comes from the manufacturing and decommissioning processes for installed plant, none of that waste is radioactive and much of it can be recycled.

The main thing that characterizes all of today's fusion research projects is frankly insane complexity. In order to get power out of any of them, they'd need to be scaled to at least gigawatt capacity before the economics showed even the faintest suggestion of ever being viable. Many of them rely on tritium as fuel, which apart from being nowhere near as readily available as the "hydrogen" the fanbois always mischaracterize it as, is every bit as difficult to handle as hydrogen while also being radioactive and poisonous as all fuck. And there is nothing good that can be achieved by any centralized multi-gigawatt thermal generation facility, fusion based or otherwise, that can't also be achieved at lower cost, with higher reliability, better fault tolerance and more flexible demand response by deploying multiple gigawatts of wind, solar PV and storage in a more spread-out fashion. These renewable technologies rely not on economies of absurd plant scale for economic viability, but on mass production - so the more of them we deploy, the lower will be the levelized cost of energy achieved.

Terrestrial fusion power looked like a nifty idea in the 1950s. In the 2020s, as it turns out, the only fusion reactor we actually need was deployed four and a half billion years ago at a comforting 150 million km from the nearest population centre. It has unmatched reliability, worldwide wireless power delivery, and another few billions of years' worth of fuel already in the hopper.

It's stupid to make piddly little copies of it here on Earth when all we really need to work on is deploying more wireless receiver stations and energy storages. Terrestrial fusion power is obsolete before even existing, and further public money poured into trying to make it work is a pointless waste of engineering talent and your taxes.
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 AM on July 7 [59 favorites]


From the article:

Despite decades of progress, it’s still not clear, even to experts within the field, whether a practical and cost-competitive fusion reactor is possible. A strong case can be made either way.

So I don't think the article is ruling out fusion power entirely.

I'd add another angle to the (excellent) article. One of their main arguments against serious fusion power adoption is that by the time it is a commercial product, other power generation methods will simply be cheaper and so undercut any need for fusion power. However, there are use cases for fusion outside of just supplying our AC units here on Earth. If we ever want to do anything serious in space, it requires relatively efficient power generation, so that we can take particles and accelerate them to absurd velocities and shoot them out the back of a space craft. So we'll need some sort of relatively advanced fission or fusion power plant for that. So it's possible that on Earth we're using basically free solar panels, while in space we're using more expensive but more mass-efficient fusion power.

Also, just want to take a moment to shout out the gloriously cool Helion reactor. Like the article's author, I have no idea if it will actually pan out, but it's basically the first energy generation in forever that doesn't rely on heating water in order to turn a turbine. Like I'm going to be very disappointed if our space ships all end up carrying around basically a paddle-wheel through deep space, rather than serenely creating and capturing current directly.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:30 AM on July 7 [4 favorites]


paddle-wheel through deep space

A lab at Princeton is looking at a fusion rocket engine for deep space. Fusion has very high energy atoms that need to go somewhere, why not just out the back end of the ship?
posted by sammyo at 11:38 AM on July 7 [2 favorites]


From the linked article:
If initial fusion efforts had been privately funded, development would have ceased as soon as it was clear that Spitzer’s simplified model of an easy-to-confine plasma was incorrect. And in fact, Spitzer had assumed that development would cease if the plasma wasn’t easy to confine: The fact that development continued anyway is somewhat surprising.
Doesn't surprise me in the slightest. There's a huge overlap between the organizations doing fusion research and those doing R&D for nuclear weapons, both communities are chock-a-block with engineers and researchers whose heads are permanently stuck in the Gernsback Continuum, and there are stupid amounts of money sloshing about in the military-industrial complex.

Apart from their completely nonsensical economics, this hand-in-glove association with weapons manufacture also gives rise to one of my strongest objections to nuclear power plants in general, whether based on existing fission technologies or speculative fusion ones. Having nukes in the energy generation mix creates a need for robust supply chains for nuclear fuels, and it's disturbingly easy for those to be abused to disguise production of weapons-grade materials as well. Picture a Westinghouse tanker pulling up to the side of a fusion power plant and hooking up a garden hose to the little faucet on the side labelled "tritium".
posted by flabdablet at 12:17 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


You have to read between the lines.

For a very detailed explanation of why tokamaks will never be useful power generators please see Freidberg et al

The same math applies to all extant fusion plant designs.

“It’ll never happen”
posted by pdoege at 12:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Not read article yet but New Zealand's Dr Ratu Mataira & Open Star are feeling confident:

"Next, fusion will be 3 years away" [their webpage opens s l o w l y]. The team page is faster.

I remain, sceptical.
posted by unearthed at 12:38 PM on July 7


All the tests need to push more energy in than is actually released. Until last year when the NIF succeeded.

NIF very carefully phrased their description of the achievement, and it was not "more energy released than input" but rather
producing more fusion energy than the amount of laser energy delivered to the NIF target.
This description omits three sources of loss—(i) the conversion of electricity to laser energy (ii) laser energy that is not delivered to the target (iii) conversion of fusion energy to electricity. Unfortunately the loss due to (i) is considerable—according to this Physics World article, the NIF's "2 MJ flash-lamp pumped laser required around 400 MJ of electrical energy, which equates to a 'wall-plug' efficiency of just 0.5%."
posted by cyanistes at 1:01 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]


I think the biggest challenge to any nuclear energy program remains the fact that increasing economies of scale on manufacturing of solar power panels and batteries for storage make the business case difficult. It is hard to justify $20 billion for a new fission plant that won’t be online for 20-30 years vs the solar / battery combo. That’s just with stuff we can make work today. You want fusion power, unless Helion, Lockheed Martin, etc come up with some huge breakthrough it is hundreds of billions of dollars and at least a decade just to maybe get ITAR to ok now we maybe can build a power plant phase. Not that the science isn’t worth doing, but it won’t save us.
posted by interogative mood at 1:03 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Overall seems like a very good article, though it’s been a while (~15 years) since I seriously followed energy research when I was in grad school.

In particular, the article’s concluding sentence is about where I stand:

All of these technologies are somewhat speculative, and may not pan out — solar and battery prices may plateau, advanced geothermal may prove unworkable, etc. In the face of this risk, fusion is a reasonable bet to add to the mix.

Though I am generally pretty optimistic about solar, and I think our major goal at the macro level should be to continue to build out as much solar and storage capacity as possible, and to phase out carbon-emitting plants as that happens.

Still, to the extent that investments in fusion R&D don’t detract meaningfully from that goal, it seems reasonable to continue to push it along. I don’t give it a high likelihood of moving the needle in the near future, but on the other hand the payoff if it works is pretty damn high.
posted by learning from frequent failure at 1:36 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


The way the fusion crowd spruiks "virtually limitless energy" always grinds my gears.

the payoff if it works is pretty damn high

The rationale for this claim always comes down to how cheap and available hydrogen is compared to the astonishing amount of energy a fusion reaction can extract from each gram of it. But the simple fact is that reducing fuel costs even to zero doesn't reduce the cost of generating energy to zero, because the plant required always costs something to build and operate. And in the case of fusion reactors, both capex and opex are always going to be absurdly high per generated megawatt hour compared to any other technology even if today's prices for wind turbines, solar PV panels and batteries do plateau, which they show absolutely no indication of doing.

In any case, we don't need limitless energy. We need enough energy, as defined by it being priced low enough to be affordable given efficient end use, yet high enough to make building and operating generation and storage plant a sound investment.

If we took all of the money that the nuke boosters would have us spend on installing their favourite toys, and spent it instead on deploying renewables, battery storage and long range HVDC links where those make sense, we would end up with an energy supply system so thoroughly overbuilt as to make it hard for the incumbents, let alone by then way more expensive nuclear market entrants, to make a return on their investment.

Ultimately the amount of energy we consume is going to be set by what we're prepared to pay for it, and I for one don't want a virtually limitless energy bill.
posted by flabdablet at 1:41 PM on July 7 [9 favorites]


Unless I missed it somewhere in the middle, the article really is not saying that we will not see fusion power in our lifetimes. I think that's a misrepresentation. It says fusion power is really hard and still in the basic science research stage, but so are some of the other technologies we'll need for sustainable energy production, and we should continue to invest in basic science work in all of these areas because we don't know what will pan out. The article is much more nuanced than the discussion here would suggest.
posted by biogeo at 1:45 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


It is not fusion's fault that people whose consumption is destroying the earth's life support system point to it as justification for why they don't have to live sustainably.

It's not fusion's fault that public and private sources of research and development funding demand unrealistic promises and timetables.

It's not fusion's fault that the public seems to demand cover for weapons research as civilian use.

It's not fusion's fault that people keep falsely claiming that any fusion prototype has made and extracted net energy. But here we are on the nth go round.

And all the technocultists who say renewables can't match demand curves will still advocate for smr and msr and fusion even though none of those can load match etc

Its a dealth cult, not fusion, technologism. Even if it could keep its promises, we'd just use the energy to make digital faberge eggs or to finish killinh ourselves and the surface of earth.

Ozymandius indeed.
posted by No Climate - No Food, No Food - No Future. at 2:03 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


Even if the CO2 greenhouse effect did not exist, if you extend current energy usage growth curves, Earth's oceans would boil away in a few hundred years (according to Sabine Hossenfelder).

So feasible fusion is far from a panacea, even in the best case scenario.

But I think blowing magnetic bubbles with tritium and deuterium plasma in them, and then encouraging the bubbles to collapse in just the right way, might make fusion power possible.
posted by jamjam at 2:25 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


It is hard to justify $20 billion for a new fission plant that won’t be online for 20-30 years vs the solar / battery combo.

Indeed it is. Which is exactly why it's so galling when the ambulatory potato who might well to be on track to become our next Prime Minister decides to go all-in on completely uncosted nukes as the bedrock of a policy that he claims will somehow reduce energy prices for Australian households despite every non-potato understanding just how stupid an idea that is.

The only reason that Australia is not already the Saudi Arabia of sunshine is that rectocranial insertion on the part of that man's party stopped us from having any coherent energy policy for the entire miserable time they were in government.

I think blowing magnetic bubbles with tritium and deuterium plasma in them, and then encouraging the bubbles to collapse in just the right way, might make fusion power possible

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." - Jurassic Park
posted by flabdablet at 2:39 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]


I mean we've also been hearing for decades about how cheap and easy solar is and how it's going to make all other power sources economically unviable, and now in 2024 solar accounts for, generously, 5% of the US's energy generation.
posted by Pyry at 2:50 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


We haven't been hearing how cheap solar is for decades plural, because it's only been about one decade since solar PV got cost-competitive with coal and only a few years since solar PV plus battery firming did. The trend has been clear for a very long time but the present-day cost comparison got completely compelling only fairly recently.

So keep an eye on that 5%; as existing power plants continue to reach retirement age, I expect that it will grow faster than you might think credible.

if you extend current energy usage growth curves, Earth's oceans would boil away in a few hundred years

Indeed. But at least we'd have that virtually limitless energy!
posted by flabdablet at 3:11 PM on July 7 [11 favorites]


NIF very carefully phrased their description of the achievement

Yes totally, but (and it's a hard to calculate 'but') it's an unoptimized testing facility, it would never be a production site. The lasers were "old". There have been significant improvements since they were installed. So can this lead to workable technology? Maybe not this exact tech but it was a significant step.

Like so many other areas in this world we need diversity, just windpower will really not solve the problem in many places (simplistic example). A relatively small power plant added to the grid even if it was not the cheapest could be a balancing factor that makes it easier to remote the last coal/gas plants.
posted by sammyo at 4:55 PM on July 7


NIF has announced 'breakthroughs' a half dozen times in the last decade and they're always many orders away from an honest breakeven, but it doesn't matter because laser containment is entirely unsuited for power generation. Even if you handwave away the cost of producing the fuel and have lasers that break physics to deliver energy efficiently enough, there's no way to deliver those pellets at the frequency required for sustained output, no way to ignite them repeatedly, and no way to capture the energy.

It is a jobs program for nuclear weapons engineers.

I am cautiously optimistic about some of the startups but ITER just announced another decade long delay this week due to problems that the startups will have to deal with.

We have a path, today, with solar, batteries, wind, hydro, and hvdc that will cover the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions from power generation. One interesting option is generating hydrogen or carbon capture hydrocarbons fueled from surplus solar production to store fuel in natgas reservoirs and run turbines as an alternative to batteries.
posted by theclaw at 6:02 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]


we've also been hearing for decades about how cheap and easy solar is and how it's going to make all other power sources economically unviable, and now in 2024 solar accounts for, generously, 5% of the US's energy generation.

And 4 years go it was 2.5% and 8 years ago less than 1%. Worldwide it is expected to exceed 30% of all power generation by 2030.

We are finally seeing this transformation happening.
posted by interogative mood at 7:03 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]


I am cautiously optimistic about some of the startups but ITER just announced another decade long delay this week...

They won't start research operations until 2034 (PDF). So that's disappointing though not entirely unexpected.

Solar is the cheapest way to make power right now, which is fairly crazy considering how expensive it was for so long. I was researching getting some cheap solar panels, and found out the mounting hardware was more expensive than the panels... that's probably why used panels are so cheap. The big problem is how handle the feast/famine nature. In places where solar is popular there are already times with more generation than demand. The electric grid assumes a small number of stable sources, so grid-tie inverters were made to sync to that. Once they dominate, it gets unstable. Then when the sun goes down, non-solar demand sharply rises.

I think that's an easier problem to solve than fusion, and more quickly solved than building a fission plant. I don't think we should stop development on either, just that assets that can be deployed before 2030 should get priority.
posted by netowl at 7:16 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Two thoughts/memes to add to the discussion...

First, flabdablet is right:
Fusion power is eight minutes away. Always has been.

Second, solar cost per mwh has been dropping exponentially for decades. Exponential changes are hard for humans to track/understand, but they change the world when they happen. Cost of computation also dropped exponentially for decades, and we can now do things with it which would have been previously inconceivable. Making the same types arguments for nuclear power from twenty years ago is senseless in the world we live in now.

Now, advanced geothermal... There's a thing to try...
posted by kaibutsu at 8:24 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


It is a jobs program for nuclear weapons engineers.

This.
posted by flabdablet at 9:51 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]


> Second, solar cost per mwh has been dropping exponentially for decades.

Exponentially *but slowly*. It has been following Wright's Law of Industrial Production pretty closely.

https://ourworldindata.org/learning-curve

Seeing this curve and knowing it will dip below coal and nuclear in the future doesn't mean it is happening now. You can reliably predict it will happen, but knowing it will do so won't mean it happens right now.

But it is happening. Right now. We broke the coal price line a few years ago, and we broke the coal line with battery costs added in for load-leveling more recently.

We can even predict what will happen in the future using these tools - the price drop isn't slowing, and the lower prices means faster install rates, which in turn means the price drop happens faster.

The drop was slow, because to get the drop you had to spend money on (relatively expensive) solar power when you knew that it would shortly be cheaper to do it, a hard sell, and when alternatives cost less. So finding ways to incentivize spending now and not later, by things like incentives in areas where it is close to being worth it, was used; this increased installed capacity and drove prices down even further.
posted by NotAYakk at 7:12 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Solar is the cheapest way to make power right now, which is fairly crazy considering how expensive it was for so long. I was researching getting some cheap solar panels, and found out the mounting hardware was more expensive than the panels... that's probably why used panels are so cheap. The big problem is how handle the feast/famine nature. In places where solar is popular there are already times with more generation than demand. The electric grid assumes a small number of stable sources, so grid-tie inverters were made to sync to that. Once they dominate, it gets unstable. Then when the sun goes down, non-solar demand sharply rises.


Battery storage has gotten so cheap and so large that it is covering grid stability better than fossil fuel generation, to the point peaker NG plants aren't competitive.

The duck curve evening gap and oversupply issues are already mostly covered by battery bridges in California and Texas (unfortunately, TX is charging batteries off of fossil in addition to solar.) There's a ton of battery storage coming online in the next few years.

There's a number of really exciting utility scale battery tech going into production, and HVDC would allow continent scale power balancing with minimal losses.

Another really cool thing about solar/bat/wind is instead of tens of billions of dollars per plant with decade long build times, solar and batteries can be done much quicker and have a much smaller minimum installation size.

Fusion is irrelevant to global warming; we can't even build fission plants fast enough to hit the emissions targets, and we know how to build them.
posted by theclaw at 8:14 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]


There's a ton of battery storage coming online in the next few years

and the main thing driving down the cost of at least the lithium-ion portion of that is the manufacturing ramp-up required to support electric vehicles.

As battery and generation costs both continue to decline, the grid is going to stop being the only feasible way to get energy into a household. As EV uptake rises, more and more people will become able to bring carpark electricity home in their car of an evening, dump some in their house battery, and achieve better supply reliability at lower cost than a grid connection.
posted by flabdablet at 9:13 AM on July 8 [5 favorites]


really exciting utility scale battery tech

I'm quite impressed by redox flow batteries. They're a bit Rube Goldberg but nowhere near as bad as a nuclear power plant, and you can make them hold as much energy as you want for as long as you want, with zero self-discharge, just by scaling the electrolyte storage tanks.
posted by flabdablet at 9:19 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]


everything flabdablet said.

been using solar power at my home for 10+ years, saved about 20$, reduced carbon by 20k pounds, and going to expand soon.
posted by nofundy at 11:00 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


flabdablet, your comments in these threads (and this thread in particular) are so informative and helpful to me - especially your beautifully written first comment in this thread.

Thank you so much for your contributions. I feel better able to advocate for an all-in on renewables policy after reading what you write.
posted by kristi at 11:08 AM on July 8 [4 favorites]


OK I did not actually read TFA but I did read the first few paragraphs, in which I caught (in the first 215 words of the piece) two very pernicious fusion-cheerleader bits of disinformation:

* there’s enough deuterium in seawater to power the entire world at current rates of consumption for 26 billion years.

* the waste produced by fusion is far less radioactive than fission

On the first point, someone should get the author of TFA excited about how much gold is dissolved in the oceans. Just because there's a lot of something in the oceans does not mean that it is economically accessible. Also, I suggest any scheme to filter the oceans for deuterium will turn out to have large environmental external costs.

On the second point, it is true that a hypothetical fusion plant would not produce spent fuel of the sort that fission reactors do. But people expecting "clean" fusion power will be shocked at the cleanup costs when the first of these hypothetical fusion reactor reaches end of life and has to be decommissioned. The fusion reaction produces neutrons, which will bombard the materials of the reactor containment structure, and render them radioactive. That's what the containment is for.

With two howlers like that in the first 215 words of the article I am not sure that proceeding is a good use of my time.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 11:12 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


>Indeed it is. Which is exactly why it's so galling when the ambulatory potato who might well to be on track to become our next Prime Minister decides to go all-in on completely uncosted nukes as the bedrock of a policy that he claims will somehow reduce energy prices for Australian households despite every non-potato understanding just how stupid an idea that is.

>The only reason that Australia is not already the Saudi Arabia of sunshine is that rectocranial insertion on the part of that man's party stopped us from having any coherent energy policy for the entire miserable time they were in government.
posted by flabdablet

>It is a jobs program for nuclear weapons engineers.
posted by theclaw


This has never been about securing Australia's energy needs.

The real reasons are 1) retaining the centralisation of energy generation to give the dying fossil fuel industry something to transfer their increasingly stranded resources and business model, and retain economic control of the industry, and 2) Australia acquiring nuclear weapons, for which it needs a nuclear industry (and purchasing nuclear powered subs is part of that push).
posted by Pouteria at 2:50 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


This has never been about securing Australia's energy needs.

Obviously. I do wish there were some way of getting those more inclined to pay attention to MAFS than politics to care about this, though.

Dutton has been picking up pointers from the Trump playbook at an absolutely terrifying rate. It's really striking just how quickly the fucker's totally bogus talking points turn up in overheard conversations at our local pub.
posted by flabdablet at 9:10 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


HVDC would allow continent scale power balancing with minimal losses

Whether spending money on cross-continent HVDC links makes more sense than spending it on batteries needs to be evaluated case by case. But if we're going to allow ourselves to dream of what could be done with the kind of unlimited budgets implicitly assumed by fusion enthusiasts, gridding up the entire planet per Buckminster Fuller does indeed have a certain elegance.
posted by flabdablet at 9:35 PM on July 8


Thank you so much for your contributions. I feel better able to advocate for an all-in on renewables policy after reading what you write.

They're just, like, my opinions, maaan.

If you want to put your own on a more solid footing, a good place to start is with the work of Amory Lovins over at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Lovins is an activist physicist who has been writing on this stuff since the 1970s; his seminal 1977 book Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace was a huge influence on me as a young man.

The closest it got to the idea of utility-scale batteries was hydrogen and fuel cells, but that's more about technology trends in the 1970s than a reflection of anything badly wrong with his overall thesis: that people don't actually want energy per se, but rather the services like heating and lighting and industrial processes and transport that energy makes possible, from which it follows that a sane energy policy should focus much more on the soft path of optimizing those end uses than on the hard path of endless growth in centralized high-tech generation plant.

Nuclear industry shills love to smear Lovins and dismiss his ideas as fanciful, but somehow they never seem to bring receipts, and I've been quietly pleased to watch unfolding developments in energy systems over the years prove his points over and over. The soft path works better and costs less, and as somebody with an engineering bent and a waste minimization mindset, that's always appealed to me.
posted by flabdablet at 11:13 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]


"And even though the NIF has made some advances in fusion power research, it’s ultimately primarily a facility for nuclear weapons research"

Yup: The Energy Department’s fusion breakthrough: It’s not really about generating electricity

I'm afraid this article only discusses specific hurdles in fusion reactor design, but never says "why we won't see a fusion reactor in our lifetime" until the last paragraph.

We'd an older post on why fusion will never happen which explains this last paragraph, but in brief: It's boils water. We know better ways to boil water.

There is zero discussion of "falling temperatures" in this article, verylazyminer. It's thus unclear what you meant, but..

Interpretation 1. Climate change makes fusion far harder, by screwing up water boiling machines.

Yes, afaik this is true for diverse reasons, including reactor size and location. Yet, if they could solve the insurmountable reactor design problem, then maybe other tech works.

Interpretation 2. Fusion is needed to stop climate change.

This is false. If anything, fusion power would only make climate change worse, ala Jevons paradox, specifically enabling lower EROI shale oil and slowing collapse. Tim Garrett discusses this.

Also, three other planetary boundaries look scarrier than climate, so we're maybe blessed if cliamte change or peak oil stops us before those do.

In truth, we'll reduce carbon emissions through some combination of civilization collapse, and altering how we consume energy, based around when the wind blows and the sun shines.

We must largely abandon trade & travel mechanisms other than electric trains. Yes sure, some sailboats and nuclear boats make sense, but nothing like today's containership fleats, and nobody wants nuclear planes.

We need industrial processes that cool down and go offline sometimes. In principle, our lives might improve if our internet turnned off several hours after the sun goes down, but mabye that's unecessary if we stop wasting data center power on advertising, AIs, bitcoin, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:17 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Something I've been thinking lately about fusion is that we already have a self sustain fusion reactor, the sun. Quite aside from the energy that hits the earth that just reflected back out into space but just think of how of the sun's energy that doesn't even hit the earth and just flies out into space uselessly! Uselessly I say! Absolutely unfathomable amounts of energy free for the taking.

I would think that the task of putting giant solar panels into space that can transmit the energy they collect back down to earth is more solvable problem than trying to achieve fusion ignition here on the ground.

Somewhat relatedly this is also why I think every sci fi story where aliens show up to harvest our planet for it's resources are full of shit. Assuming that kind of technological capability is even possible, there's just so much stuff floating around in space that no one will ever care about to be anything other than welcoming of any other intelligent species.

Stars and planets made out of just about anything you can think of.
posted by VTX at 9:23 PM on July 9


I would think that the task of putting giant solar panels into space that can transmit the energy they collect back down to earth is more solvable problem than trying to achieve fusion ignition here on the ground.

Right, because what this planet clearly needs at this point is more solar energy delivered to the surface in order to be turned into waste heat for the atmosphere to trap.

When all you have is solutions, everything looks like a problem.
posted by flabdablet at 10:18 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


At daytime, you'd surely obtain more power by simply building more solar pannels. At night, yes maybe your mirror could improve base load, but likely doing this casues other ecological damage. A space laser might reduce ecological damage, but now you've sacrificed way more energy.

Also, space mirrors make really nice weapons of mass distruction: If you want peace in the middel east, just light up the nearby seas during a hot month, thereby pump up the humidity until the wet bulb temperature stays above 35˚C all day. It'll improve nearby rainfall too, so everybody wins, except for the millions who die from heat stroke.

We've one glaringly obvious solution: Abandon base load and turn everything off at night. It'd improve everyone's lives anyways, ala more family time, more reading time, etc.

Yes, there exist industrial processes that'll require new furnace designs or become unprofitable once they cannot run during the night, but overall we'll adapt industrial processes to solar much more easily than we'd adapt food production to unlivable temperatures.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:31 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Why yes, it would make sense to put as many solar panels on earth as one could. Thanks for pointing out the obvious.

Would a bunch of fusion powerplants somehow avoid this problem of more energy being on earth? Energy is energy and both are being powered by the same process anyways.

It's not just "more energy" it's unfathomable amounts of energy that could be used to power all the fully automated automated gay space condos you like. Take all the solar energy that gets collected on earth through any and all processes and then double that.

And I'm not talking about a space mirror, I'm talking about a solar panel at a lagrangian point or something. The energy gets collected out in space and beamed back via some yet-to-exist technology.

A lot of problems can get solved with that much energy on tap. Carbon capture, indoor farming, nothing but electric vehicles, etc.
posted by VTX at 8:00 PM on July 10


It's not just "more energy" it's unfathomable amounts of energy

and would therefore cost unfathomable amounts to harvest.

Again: we don't need and can't afford unfathomable amounts of energy. We don't need unfathomable, we need enough, and solar PV plus wind plus batteries plus hydro plus HVDC is already fully capable of providing that at far lower cost per megajoule than any of these sci-fi wankfest boondoggles. All we have to do is fund and deploy it.

Not only can we not afford unfathomable amounts of energy on an economic basis, we can't afford it on a physics basis either. Increasing the carbon dioxide content of our atmosphere by a couple hundred parts per million has already shifted the thermal balance of this planet to an extent that's bringing on the fastest mass extinction in the geological record. If we were to get serious about cooking ourselves with space lasers as well, no doubt we could get that job done even faster.

The beauty of surface-based renewable power generation is that it taps into energy flows that are already here, flows whose inexorable decay into waste heat has already been factored into the planetary thermal balance by virtue of having been happening for billions of years.

People who can't see the free lunch that's just sitting right here on a plate might as well be koalas as far as I'm concerned.
posted by flabdablet at 11:32 PM on July 10


“At a 2.3% [economic and/or energy] growth rate, [earth's surface] would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.”
— Tom Murphy, “Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist” (previously)
posted by jeffburdges at 6:17 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Yeah, growth economists have a weird mindset.

I have yet to see an argument for economic growth being desirable in and of itself that doesn't founder on the rocks of enough.

The way those arguments are always constructed starts with a big long list of wonderful things that humans provide for each other followed by an invitation to consider how much better most people's lives are now than they were say 200 years ago because of all that growth in the general availability of those things. And those are good points as far as they go, but all of them work equally well in support of economic abundance as of economic growth, and they completely miss the point that growth is good where there is scarcity but becomes perverse where abundance has already been achieved.

If I already have enough to eat, my life is not made better by having my portion sizes forcibly expanded by 2.3% per year. Nor is it made better by becoming increasingly hemmed in and immobilized by ubiquitous and compulsory "conveniences", especially given how obvious it's already becoming that providing those involves the enshittification of everything. Thanks but no thanks, I do not wish to subscribe to breathing-as-a-service.

Economic growth, like all forms of growth, runs into diminishing returns and tops out at some level of abundance; pretending that it doesn't or can't or mustn't be allowed to is just flat stupid.
posted by flabdablet at 8:01 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


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